ROBESON COUNTY, NC (WMBF) - In April, the Robeson County Health Department said the first unsafe levels of GenX had been found in a homeowner's well in the St. Pauls area.
The discovery initiated more testing and a call for the community to come together to talk about GenX's potentially harmful effects and what should be done about it.
But before that meeting happens on May 29, WMBF News Anchor Kaitlin Stansell took a closer look at how this man-made compound ended up in drinking water miles from where it's produced.
The Chemours facility, located on the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville, has been in the headlines since at least June of 2017 when the North Carolina Department of Environmental quality and the state's Department of Heath and Human Services initiated an investigation.
At first, the issue was thought to be limited to ground water that was supplying people's faucets down stream.
However, the contaminants have been found in more places, and experts say the problem goes beyond the water supply.
Robeson County GenX Testing
Caulder Road has access to county filtered water, but some homeowners who live there say they just prefer the taste of well water.
Wayne Baker said his family has lived on their property for the past 41 years. But after all that time, Baker said he may now have to switch over to Robeson County's water system because of concerns over GenX.
Kaitlin rode along with Robeson County Health Department officials as they tested Baker's water on April 23, 2018. Just about a month before though, another homeowner's well on Caulder Road became the first verified well that tested positive for GenX. That's why Baker says he wanted his water tested, too.
"You don't know exactly what to think. Don't know what it's going to do if we keep drinking the water. We wanted to have it tested so we know what to do," Baker said.
Robeson County Health Department officials have been proactive about this situation. They've been doing their own tests on private wells and other bodies of water when they figured out their county was not included in North Carolina's investigation of Chemours.
"I don't know what kind of health concerns we've got coming in the future. This is the only source of water since we've been here," Baker said.
Health department officials filled bottles with Baker's water to be sent to a laboratory in Charleston for testing. Baker says whether his well tests positive for unsafe levels of GenX or not, he and his family switched to bottled water as soon as they heard their neighbor's well did have elevated amounts, making the water undrinkable.
"I'm going to be upset but what can I do about it, going up against a big corporation like that," Baker said.
What is GenX?
According to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, GenX is a part of a family of man-made chemicals that do not naturally occur in the environment. They are known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). NCDHHS says these chemicals have broad uses in commercial products such as food packaging, nonstick coatings, and firefighting foam.
GenX is a trade name for one unregulated PFAS chemical compound used in manufacturing nonstick coatings and for other purposes. It is also produced as a byproduct of certain manufacturing processes, according to NCDHHS.
Now, officials like Robeson County Health Director Bill Smith have been left to figure out how this compound ended up in private wells miles from Chemours.
"It's not an easy science," Smith said.
GenX Air Emissions
This issue goes beyond ground water though, NCDEQ has issued a notice of violation to Chemours. Officials believe air emissions from the plant's smoke stacks are depositing GenX into rainwater, which is spreading the compound miles beyond the facility's site.
"It's been an evolving situation over the last 9 to 12 months," Michael Abraczinskas, the director of the division of air quality for NCDEX, said. "Obviously this started as a river quality issue to a ground water issue, then when we found GenX compound in private drinking water wells off site in the ground water…the question was, 'how did it get there?'"
Abraczinskas said NCDEQ believed air emissions played a role, but initially, they didn't have the data to prove just how significant the issues were.
In court documents, the state of North Carolina claims Chemours low balled their emission estimates when they reported to NCDEQ in June of 2017. What the agency discovered is that actual air emissions were 33.6 times higher than what Chemours told investigators at that time, according to the court filing.
The complaint claims Chemours has possibly put human health and the environment in jeopardy.
The consequences of GenX exposure could take years to reveal themselves and could expand beyond the 7-mile radius from the facility that experts have discovered so far.
"You're talking about things that have happened in the laboratory that we don't know what has happened to a human yet," Smith said. "GenX I think has only been around less than 10 years, so if its long term, we're talking about liver cancer 40 years from now, 50 years. So, it's hard to undo the contaminants at that point."
Chemours has responded to the state's notice of violation. In a letter, Chemours' representatives say they will spend more than $100 million to implement new technology that is expected to reduce air emissions of GenX compounds by 99 percent.
The letter cites why Chemours believes this compound is so important to their continuing work. It says materials produced at the Fayetteville facility are critical to the state's and the nation's economy.
It goes on to claim the US military, automobile industry and many others could suffer severe shortages and could be forced to turn to suppliers from China or other foreign nations without Chemours' work.
Kaitlin tried to talk to representatives at Chemours, going to the facility with her photographer. But she was turned away by a security guard just outside the gate.
She did see signs posted that told people bottled water was available for them.
Kaitlin also tried to reach out to Chemours through their media email several times, and she never got a response back.
"All we want to do is be a part of the discussion," Smith said."We didn't want it to just be the Cape Fear, didn't want it to just be Cumberland and Bladen. If the problem is over here, we want it addressed here too. It's not that we are unique. I'm not so sure it's not in some other places. We just wanted to be a part of the solution."
Robeson County Health Department officials confirm a meeting regarding GenX will be held in the St. Pauls community on May 29 at 6:00 at St. Pauls Middle School.